Pets Currently Not at Risk in Canine Leishmaniasis Outbreak

By Julie Lux, editor,

Recent news reports have brought to light the outbreak of canine visceral leishmaniasis, a rare disease generally found in South America and Mediterranean countries where it is transmitted by the bite of an infected female sand fly. The first cases were discovered in the foxhound packs of a hunt club in Dutchess County, New York in the summer of 1999. Since that time, the disease has been identified in 21 states and Ontario, Canada and to date only foxhounds from hunting packs have been found to be infected.

Leishmaniasis can be transmitted to humans, however, tests have been conducted on handlers of the foxhound packs and no cases of the disease have been found to date. Preliminary investigation suggests that among the affected foxhounds, the disease has been transmitted from dog to dog and that the disease was most probably introduced into the foxhound packs from a dog imported to the United States.

A number of state, local and national organizations have joined together to study the condition including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), New York State Department of Health, Virginia Department of Health, North Carolina State (NC State) University College of Veterinary Medicine and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Peter M. Schantz, VMD, PhD, of the division of parasitic diseases at the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC,does not think there is a cause for alarm among pet owners and breeders outside the foxhunting world. “”There is no verification yet of involvement of other dogs,”” he said. The CDC has, and will continue to, test stray dogs, which are most at risk, but to this point no cases of the leishmaniasis have been confirmed in these animals.”” Blood tests of 445 dogs of other breeds not associated with foxhounds already have been tested and all were negative.

Symptoms of visceral leishmaniasis include bleeding, wasting,seizures, swollen lymph glands, weight loss, hair loss, skin lesions, swollen limbs and joints and kidney failure. “”We have a very serious disease that leads to chronic debilitation and kidney failure in dogs, and can lead to their death. Unfortunately, the disease is extremely hard to diagnose,”” said Dr. Edward Breitschwerdt, professor of small animal internal medicine at NC State.

Dr. Schantz said that there is no indication at this time that Ivermectin and other treatments typically given for the prevention of  heartworm, another insect borne disease, has any effect on protecting an animal from canine leishmaniasis. He noted that there are insect repellant collars available in other countries however he stresses that these measures are not indicated for the general pet population at this time. “”This infection appears to be confinedto hunting foxhounds and there is no evidence of insect vectorinvolvement,”” he said.

Other sporting and hunting groups have expressed concern and Dr. Schantz said that the CDC has tested “”half a dozen Beagle packs””and found no evidence of the disease. The Center is continuing its research into the cause of this outbreak and priority is being given to dogs of any breed that exhibit symptoms indicative of leishmaniasis.

“”Someone who believes their pet may be infected should first consult their veterinarian. If the clinical condition suggests leishmaniasis, we will test these animals,”” he said.

Dr. Breitschwerdt said that hunting packs are “”perhaps the highest research priority for both foxhounds and other dog breeds.Presumably the foxhound has a genetic predisposition to develop disease manifestations when infected, however, too few pet or other hunting breeds have been tested to assume that only foxhounds are being infected.””

“”We continue to cooperate with the Centers for Disease Control and the Masters of the Foxhounds in performing molecular tests to detect Leishmania DNA in the blood or lymph nodes of dogs in which infection is suspected,”” Dr. Breitschwerdt said.

Dr. Schantz indicated that the priorities in the investigation are aimed at determining the extent of infection in foxhounds, the possible involvement of other breeds, determine the modes of transmission and the potential public health significance. Both Dr. Schantz and Dr. Breitschwerdt agree that pet owners and breeders should stay informed but that there is no cause for alarm at this point. “”Based on current date, risk to pets should be minimal,”” Dr. Breitschwerdt said. “”Pet owners should await the results of ongoing and future research.”” will continue to follow this story and provide updates as new information is available.


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